Fitzcarraldo Editions is fast becoming my favourite publishing house. Simon Critchley’s Notes on Suicide was one of the best books I read last year, I have a couple of their blue fiction books in my HUGE “to read” pile and – I discovered in the end pages of the phenomenal Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint – their next publication is a book on poetry by Ben Lerner, that really great fucking writer. Fitzcarraldo Editions is doing something that about four or five other small publishers have tried to do over the last few years, but they’re absolutely nailing it. Excellent, relevant, interesting, books, beautifully written and beautifully presented.* The big red mark on the front of my copy is a heady balsamic/garlic pasta sauce stain I created as I tried eating whilst reading – that is a very real stain, not an offbeat design choice. Because Football, as published here with the accompanying Zidane’s Melancholy, is a gorgeous piece of literature, and my adorable clumsiness cannot take that away.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a writer who I hadn’t heard of until recently, but on the strength of this and what I have read about him, he seems my kinda guy, basically a Belgian Geoff Dyer. In this 90 page volume are included two of his previous books (both translated by Shaun Whiteside), the longer (about 80 pages) is Football, first published last year, whilst the second is Zidane’s Melancholy, a 5 page essay that was published as a physical stand-alone book in 2006. Both are great, both are wide-reaching and both drag into the centre of intellectualised thought and experience a topic often thought of as crass, vulgar and beneath the kind of people who read and write these kind of books: football. But, as Toussaint argues with enough gentle force to convince me to invest a bit of time paying attention to football going forwards, it is a popular and culturally significant entity for a reason: it captures and creates emotions, it tells over-arching narratives and it feeds the popular imagination with heroes, with villains, with characters and with plot. It is also – behind the stereotype of thuggishness bespectacled MA graduates like myself might mentally believe in – a subject and an activity that unites people across countries, classes, races, religions, ages and genders. Football, as only an idiot would disagree with, is significant, though whether or not it is important is rather more debatable. However, as the lauded British novelist David Peace has proven before, football does have a place in the serious literary canon, and Toussaint uses it as a jumping off point** to explore ideas of ageing, internationalism, travel, culture, class and identity.
Toussaint is middle-aged and looking back over his life and literary career. I haven’t read any of his other books, which are mentioned frequently, but that isn’t a problem because that isn’t the point of the references: Football offers a narrator who is a noted intellectual struggling to distract himself from his distractions. Football has always been something he has enjoyed – playing as a child and perennially watching – but it is now, a year after completing a novel cycle he had worked on for many years, that he finds his mind locked upon it. Spending the Summer of 2014 on Corsica in a large, emptyish house, he intended to write a weighty, literary, novel, but he instead finds himself staying up every night live-streaming the Brazilian World Cup. And from there, the book as published naturally unfolds, and it is a work of true, literary, beauty.
Starting off with fifteen short vignettes on ideas about and around football, the book very quickly pitches itself as both deeply anchored to its topic, but not trapped by it. Toussaint writes about the architecture of stadiums, the familiarity of international jerseys*** and what these colour and pattern matchings come to represent; he writes about childhood school games and then the pain of a pre-adolescent move from Brussels to Paris; he writes about the emotions other people experience and how human moods are shared and synthesised by a sympathetic crowd; he writes about the nature of time and the nature of memory and ideas about what it means to be human. In short, connected, pieces, Toussaint opens up a wide conversation about a sport and the world in which it is played, and he then goes on to expand upon every point he had made by writing, in more detail, about his experiences related to every World Cup held since 1998.
These pieces vary in length and emotion, but never in tone. There’s a beautiful piece about being one of two elated Belgium fans in the audience of a match in Japan, there’s a heartbreaking section on watching the first World Cup after the death of his father, as excitement about the tournament was something the two men had always shared. There’s a great aside about the Le Mans 24-hour motor race in 2002, which he was writing a journalistic assignment on in the middle of the world cup, and there’s a very funny piece about – in Corsica in 2014 – the sudden loss of electricity in the midst of a tense penalty shoot-out and a silent sprint around his sleeping family searching for a battery operated radio to learn the result.
Throughout Football, Toussaint is able to emphasise how much joy he has got from his interest, how many cathartic experiences. From his childhood bonds with other children, kicking a ball around in the evenings, through to his emptiness at no longer being able to share a sofa and a game with his ageing father, Toussaint evokes football as something that unties and creates and brings people together. This is perhaps a corny way to read the book, but it is overwhelmingly positive about life and existence, and does engage with the snobbery one encounters against the sport. But, fuck it, the pleasure he has found from spectatorship does not diminish from his career as a public, francophone, intellectual, and this glorious essay – about far more than football – justifies his interest and his argument, as well as compelling me to, yeah, engage with football, and not just as a way to bond with my own father, but as a way to enrich my own life.
Football is a great source of happiness for a great many people, and Football was a huge source of pleasure for me. I regularly laughed, I regularly cried, and I was repeatedly impressed by the language and the imagery and the emotion contained within Toussaint’s writing and Whiteside’s crisp translation.
The book’s coda, Zidane’s Melancholy, was also a marvel, a beautiful little piece about Zinédine Zidane’s final international game before his retirement, about his rage and his disappointment and about his pain at not being able to end with the glory that he wanted. Toussaint opens this up into a comment on existence and society and life as a whole, and does in five pages what a lot of writers would struggle to do in 5000.
Toussaint is great, and Football is wonderful. Highly recommended.
* I’m going to click through to the link on their website and subscribe to all their forthcoming publications. Fuck the rest of the pile: buy more books! (And forget that I’ve got an ongoing Granta subscription and haven’t read an issue for about two years…)
** I read two reviews of this book (though one felt like commentary around a press release) before buying it, and both of those mentioned the madeleine of A la recherché de temps perdu. So I won’t. But that’s what I was thinking of when I said “jumping off point”, because I’m literary as shit, yeah? (And because I’ve encountered that comparison twice in the last month.)
*** Even I, distanced as I am, know which countries’ teams play in blue and white vertical stripes or green and yellow, for example.